You can help to improve the health and wellbeing of people on a local, national or international scale by choosing one of the many public health jobs available to graduates
Public health is about taking a broad view of society to improve wellbeing and prevent illness - in contrast to hospital doctors, GPs and nurses who primarily look after individual patients on a case-by-case basis.
According to NHS Health Careers, there are three main areas of public health:
- Health protection - working to prevent the outbreak of epidemics, plan responses to emergencies, or in food safety.
- Health improvement - you might be involved in campaigns to encourage heathier eating, physical exercise, or to persuade people to quit smoking and drugs.
- Healthcare public health - making sure that everyone has access to the high quality health services and medicines that they need, when they need them.
What are the most important public health issues?
COVID-19 has hugely increased our awareness of the role of public health professionals as they have responded to a new disease and how to prevent it, for example by measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing and vaccine development.
'We have also become acutely aware of how the population is not equally susceptible to the impacts of COVID-19,' explains Professor Penny Cook, professor of Public Health at the University of Salford. 'We have learned, for example, that those who are from black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities are more at risk, as are those with less job security and those whose jobs mean that it is difficult to practice social distancing. The priority of public health professionals is to reduce such inequalities in health outcomes,' adds Professor Cook.
Dr Yolanda Eraso, course leader of the BSc Public Health and Health Promotion at London Metropolitan University tells us about some of the other issues facing public health professionals. 'New challenges will emerge in governance: the need of public health to become better integrated with the health and social care sector, partnership work (public and private sectors), and greater devolution from Whitehall to develop solutions appropriate to local areas. Other major challenges are environmental sustainability and climate change, antimicrobial resistance, preparing for epidemics, mental health, and building public trust in health protection and preventative measures.'
According to Professor Cook, other important public health issues include 'the rising burden of death and illness due to so-called 'lifestyle diseases' - those which, on one level, are simply explained by inactivity, alcohol consumption and poor diet. On another level though, these conditions can all be seen through the lens of poverty and lack of opportunity, as evidenced by the far higher rates of such illness in deprived communities.'
How do I get a job in public health?
Jobs are available in local authorities and government, the NHS, private healthcare companies, charities, and in higher education/research. Roles are varied - encompassing everything from school nurses and substance misuse workers to public health consultants and epidemiologists - meaning there is no standard route into this field.
Find out more about relevant roles to see what qualifications are required:
- Environmental health practitioner
- Health and safety adviser
- Health improvement practitioner
- Health visitor
- Occupational hygienist
For more information about what is considered a public health job, see Health Careers - The public health workforce explained.
Gaining work experience by volunteering for public health related charities is one way of impressing potential employers. When it comes to looking for jobs, NHS Jobs and local authority websites are good places to start, as well as general jobs websites for opportunities in the private sector.
Dr Justin Webb PhD, course leader for the MSc Public Health at London Metropolitan University advises that you keep up to date on matters relating to public health.
'Organisations such as the Royal Society for Public Health and the Faculty for Public Health are good starting points, and when looking globally, try the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the World Health Organisation.'
To work in a high-level role, for example in public health consultancy, studying for a Masters degree in public health will give you a significant advantage.
What does an MSc Public Health involve?
Doing a public health course brings numerous benefits as Professor Cook explains, 'As well as giving you a good grounding in contemporary public health practice it can bring you in touch with the professionals that work in public health, perhaps by being involved with a live project. If you are interested in a career in health research, then the right course can put you in touch with the leading researchers in the field, and is also a good stepping stone to a PhD.'
Entry requirements for Masters programmes in public health usually include a good undergraduate degree in a health-related subject. Relevant subjects such as geography, politics and psychology are often accepted too. Having some paid or voluntary work experience that demonstrates your interests will significantly improve your chances of getting a place.
Tuition fees for full-time, one-year courses tend to be between £6,000 and £10,000, although you may be eligible for a Masters loan. Most Masters degrees in public health are also available to study over two years on a part-time basis.
You'll typically study a set of core modules and write a dissertation. For instance, the modules you'll take on the University of Salford's MSc Public Health include:
- 21st century global public health challenges
- Epidemiology and statistics for public health
- Research methods applied to public health.
'Students should choose a course that includes a contemporary focus on the 'upstream' causes, or 'social determinants' of health,' suggests Professor Cook. 'This is because by far the greatest health burden is caused because the population does not have equal access to a healthy environment and a healthy society.'
Meanwhile, London Metropolitan University's course covers modules such as:
- Health in the city
- Wellbeing in later life
- Managing health and wellbeing in the workplace.
Research the different public health Masters degrees available to see which one best meets your own interests. To find the right programme for you, search for postgraduate courses in public health.
An MSc Public Health will set you up for a successful career in the field especially one accredited by the Agency for Accreditation of Public Health Education in the European Region or with core modules approved by the Royal Society for Public Health.
Dr Webb thinks you should also take an interest in the destinations of alumni. 'London Met's public health graduates have gone on to positions within the NHS, community organisations, government agencies, local authorities, health promotion agencies, human rights agencies, health sectors abroad, international health institutions, academia and the business and voluntary sectors. Some graduates also undertake advanced research studies.'
Find out more
- Explore the healthcare sector.